Winifred Holtby was born on 23rd June 1898 at home in the East Yorkshire village of Rudston. She was education at home by a governess, at Queen Margaret's School in Scarborough and Somerville College, Oxford. A literate child in 1911 Holtby’s mother had Browns of Hull print a book of her poems My Garden & Other Poems, Holtby was just thirteen.
Today we are more familiar with Holtby’s literary works, but in her lifetime she was better known as a journalist, political activist and social rights campaigner. Holtby travelled all over Europe lecturing for the League of Nations Union as well as writing in support of women's rights. When women got the right to vote in 1928, she produced A New Voter's Guide to Party Programmes aimed at helping new women voters find their political feet. Holtby voted Labour, canvassed for Labour candidates, gave speeches and wrote articles for the left-wing journal New Leader.
In 1926 Holtby toured South Africa studying the conditions and problems of native Africans. The novel Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933) was written as a result of this interest; it examines the striking differences between the African way of life and the European “civilised” way of life. Holtby also became very active in helping fund the work of William Ballinger, a Scotsman working in Africa to improve conditions for native South Africans, by providing education, grants and sponsorships. This support was not just limited to campaigning and writing letters of appeal for funds, but direct funding from her own pocket.
Holtby collapsed whilst campaigning for the Labour Party in the 1932 General Election; after a second collapse in 1933 she was diagnosed with a kidney disease and given two years to live. The last two years of her life became a frenzy of work, continuing with her journalism, publishing two more books in 1934: Truth is not Sober and Women and a Changing Society. Holtby died in a London nursing home on 29th September 1935.
A memorial service was held on 1st October 1935 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London, followed by a funeral service and burial the following day at Rudston Church. Holtby left two books to be published by her literary executor Vera Brittain. These were South Riding (1936) and Pavements at Anderby (1937). Holtby bequeathed her royalties to Somerville College.